Dial M For Manual

I learned the basics of photography as a teenager, when I bought my first proper camera – a Zenith E. This was a solid and popular no-nonsense 35mm SLR from Russia. There are no fancy settings or buttons on the Zenith, just a light meter, a dial for selecting the shutter speed and a ring on the lens to select aperture. In the viewfinder was a little needle that indicated if there was too much or too little light for the current exposure settings.  The idea was to adjust either the shutter speed or aperture to achieve the correct exposure. It was an excellent beginners’ camera that provided the perfect platform for understanding exposure and the relationship between aperture and shutter speed.

Despite the fact the modern cameras come with a wealth of automatic settings and modes, I still often prefer to shoot in manual, allowing me to select not only the aperture and shutter speeds but also the ISO (light sensitivity) and white balance. This means that I can choose the best configuration for the particular scene that I’m shooting, rather than letting the camera make a decision based on a programmed formula.

Cameras of course can’t see. They can only make judgements based on the light entering the camera through the lens. They have no idea if the image is a portrait, a sports action shot or a landscape. Certainly they can feature modes that give some indication to the camera’s software of the type of shot being taken, but they’re still generic conditions and therefore predetermined settings. They still don’t take full account of the particular scene or the specific requirements of the photographer.

By way of an example, the image above was taken at an aperture of f2.8 to give a shallow depth of field, with a shutter speed of 1/50th sec at ISO200. The light source was a fluorescent tube. If the camera had been set to automatic it would have chosen a smaller aperture and underexposed the image due to the brightness of the white background. As well as manually controlling the exposure I also set the focus point myself, rather than letting the camera’s autofocus system decide which part of the image should be sharpest. This allowed me to guide the viewers eye to the mode dial on the subject camera.

If you’re interested in finding out more about SLR photography, there’s a good series of starter guides on the Digital SLR Photography website.